Books and Information Go Their Separate Ways
Print goes onto the net every day
By Bruce McKinney
Books until recently have been the primary form for preserving and distributing information. They were typically inexpensive, compact and easily organized. Society, to ensure broad access, supported libraries. Schools had their own as did most communities. Information was widely held as a social good. For decades books and information were inseparable and this has made it an easy assumption that books and information are inseparable. They are not and the consequences for libraries enormous.
For the past ten years the internet has made it possible to obtain information without opening a book. Initially the book you didn't have to open was the yellow pages. These days it's increasingly your research resources. It isn't so much that the exact material is online. Rather it's that a reasonable approximation is and it's easy to find. You may not find the Encyclopedia Britannica but you will find Wikipedia. In the not-so-distant future internet search results will dwarf the content of all books though the online content will not be the same. It could include all books and if Google and in time other search engines continue to pursue this as a goal it probably will. Google now scans older books adding every word on every page to their database. Where once we looked up title and author we can now look up references in the full text. This is the difference between counting pails of sand and examining every grain. In doing this search engines redefine the very definition of knowing. Libraries, whose core mission is enlightenment, now find themselves as deer in the headlights of technological change that reduces their currency, the printed word, to the easily and freely searchable. They have seen this coming.
Popular literature and magazines were among the first to move from library to home. For decades they have been widely promoted to the public who increasingly prefer to buy a copy rather than visit a library to see or borrow it. The economics are simple. The borrowing of a book is free but two trips, that aren't, are required. Libraries are also typically a step behind in the stocking of popular new material. The lines for the recent Harry Potter book weren't at libraries. They were at book stores.
Libraries have been redefining their reason-for-being for decades. They have been stocking up on the type of information that individuals occasionally need but rarely have. Scientific monographs, databases, bound runs of local newspapers, the books and ephemera of local history and expensive and difficult to obtain materials to name just a few. They have also been active in acquiring databases and internet access to entire categories of databases. And increasingly libraries let patrons access these databases from their computers at work and home. Thus the line between patron, library and internet data source is blurring even as libraries adjust to the changing world.
Traditionally libraries have owned their material and been protective of it. Their ownership has allowed them to impose rules, limits, specific days and hours. And as libraries increasingly have added databases to their resources they also tended to select those that were restricted to libraries or were so expensive as to be beyond the reach of individuals. So even if they did not own the material it effectively functioned as "owned" material. Control has been the paramount issue.
Books and Information Go Their Separate Ways
Issued locally, used nationally.
These days the relationship between the printed and electronic word is relentlessly shifting toward the net and moving beyond the control of libraries; their access increasingly the same as everyone else's and for libraries a very fundamental change toward equality with their patrons. Their model has been based on unique advantage and their uniqueness is declining as the power of the internet increases.
And so these days the future of libraries is debated. Google, as they scan older books to page by page add them to their searches, builds the world's greatest stacks, the almost unlimited library shelves that increasingly convert pages from paper to internet readable code and thereupon become searchable to a world that is quickly learning it needs one access, not many copies and certainly not many copies in many locations. This is the rub.
Libraries are of course more than the sum of their books. They are internet access to otherwise restricted sites as well as general internet access to those who can not otherwise afford it. They are reading rooms and microfiche departments, periodicals and history, eBooks and eAudio. They are also meeting rooms, exhibitions and always changing. Perhaps most importantly they are the frequently experienced staff that answers questions and directs the questioner to the right place and source. In short they are invaluable if less essential than they used to be.
What's to be done?
The leadership in the library community needs to not simply accept that the world changes but also to move from the "no choice but to" end of the bus to a front seat. In accepting a leadership role it becomes apparent that libraries do have options. There should almost certainly be a national library card and a fingerprint sign-in. It would be available to all children free of charge, available to teenagers for a nominal charge, to young adults at a reduced fee and then to all aged 26 to 60 at full price less accommodations for students, the military and those needing financial assistance. Those older would receive a reduced senior rate.
With a national system in place every library could contribute its unique material to it in electronic form and receive a portion of the income based on the number of accounts issued and the number of pages visited. The national government should contribute a portion as could state and local governments.
Once established, the statistics of use will create a path to further development.
I don't even think it would be difficult and I also believe that substantial corporations and individuals will come forward to support it both with ideas and money. For today though it isn't money that's needed, it's vision and confidence.
The future is out there. It's time to go get it.